X–buddhist inanities (in lieu of an intro)
Two pervasive reductions are now central to x-buddhist practice. To see this simply ‘google’ the word meditation, click on your mouse button, and presto. Here’s one:
So I brought my awareness into the sensations of my body, and that’s when the funny thing happened. It’s something that’s happened before, but every time it does happen it’s wonderful. Suddenly, my walking meditation practice “clicked.” And I found myself looking into my experience with pure, unconditional love. And then I realized that everything I needed in order to be completely fulfilled was contained within that present moment, and all I had to do was notice and appreciate it. Any thinking that I did was going to take me away from perfection, and why would I want to do that? And so my thinking pretty much ground to a halt. (1)
Sitting on our veranda at Strawberry Hill, a mountaintop retreat in Jamaica where we are teaching a workshop, it’s easy to feel spacious and alive, vast and open, connected to sky and earth. This feeling comes naturally here but just as easily dissolves when we’re confronted with the “too many people, too little time, too much to do” syndrome of everyday life back in Manhattan. Maybe if we lived here all the time we’d always feel boundless and accessible…ahhh…that’s a trap. All of us tend to look outside of ourselves for the source of contentment, and that’s exactly how we create our own discomfort. We forget that what we need to find this kind of well-being is completely available to us all the time. It’s our own body and mind. (2)
Lets call these two reductions : the reduction to the present moment, and the reduction to the body.
X-buddhists, almost always blind to the ideological context in which they frame their discourse, conceive of time and the body in ways indebted to a 19th century recalibration of the medieval Buddhist world view. Congenitally incapable of conceiving of their discourse in terms of their situation, they remain within the confines of a redundant thought and a quietist practice. The discourse that accompanies this practice has degenerated in recent times into a form of public relations/advertisement drivel. It has more in common with the worst sort of pop psychology. But don’t be dismissive. The more stupid the discourse becomes the more efficiently it seems to produce docile subjects addicted to a form of transcendental navel gazing. If in doubt, devote an hour (if your digestive system can ‘stomach’ it) to the innumerable sites dedicated to contemporary Buddhist practice on the web. I chose the above two at random. Finding such x-buddhist inanities is not difficult. They encapsulate what has emerged as the common denominator of modern x-buddhist discourse – religion as inner experience. I can do no better here than quote Richard K. Payne:
These conceptions are the ground for claims that religion, defined as religious experience, is irreducible to other factors, such as social history or economics, and arises solely from itself (the sui generis claim). Since such a hypothetical experience is preverbal, it is also not subject to evaluation. Being a direct experience of reality just as it is, it is self-authenticating. In other words, there is no way that reasoned, reflective thought can be applied to the claims made on the basis of “religious experience.” (3)
Taking this into account and re-reading the above quotes, we can see what a funny little merry-go-round x-buddhists are blissfully spinning around on.
‘Any thinking that I did was going to take me away from perfection, and why would I want to do that? And so my thinking pretty much ground to a halt.’ (see above)
Lets ignore the fact that this is impossible, short of a massive brain seizure (even then there is probably some thinking going on somewhere) and take it that what the writer means when she says that her thinking came to a halt is that she ceased to identify with the content of her thought. Lets say that she now finds herself more or less in a state of having lost faith in the power of thought to deliver a form of knowledge equal to the knowledge delivered by the experience of the absence of an identification with thought (even though, mind you, the thought about the uselessness of identifying with thought, is an essential thought grounding her practice) The upshot is that she will ignore any thoughts that might intrude on her lack of identification with the content of thought. In other words she will adapt a general attitude of ignoring the thoughtful promptings that might lead her to question the validity of her experience.
To add to her already blissful insulation from the disturbing intrusion of her own thoughts, we can now add a second layer of insulating material drawn from x-buddhist discourse, as described by Richard Payne (see above).
‘there is no way that reasoned, reflective thought can be applied to the claims made on the basis of “religious experience.”
In other words our friend is now doubly insulated, from within and without, as it were. Dismissive of any and all critique, she will regard attempts by others to question the validity of her practice, and the discourse that accompanies it, as just so much intellectualizing distraction.
Ahhh…bliss. How comfy can you get? Well, there are the extra ‘comphies’ enjoyed by a ‘professional’ living a life conditioned on the injustices of the capitalist economy (not to be sneezed at, even by our ‘spiritual’ friend) but we will leave that for now.
Time and the body (or time is money )
Time and the body, are, of course, long-standing preoccupations of Buddhist philosophical enquiry, but contemporary x-buddhism approaches this classical preoccupation by way of its ideological co-option, and in the context of late capitalist economics. This has repercussions.
Fredric Jameson, in his essay ‘The end of Temporality’ (4) brings the discourse on temporarily and the body together to show how both terms connect with the larger question of economy, and with preoccupations conditioned on our collective experience of work. Much of Jameson’s essay traces how the way we perceive time relates with what he calls the temporal mode of production. This concept originates with Althusser and concerns the way work conditions our experience of time; the stark contrast, for example, between the rhythms of agricultural work – the seasonal cycles of planting and harvesting – and the experience of industrial workers whose concept of the passing of time is conditioned on the immediacy of attending to fast-moving machinery, production cycles, monotonous repetition, and the artificial segmentation of the working day, week, and year. For the industrial worker, disconnected from the ‘natural’ temporal cycle, the word natural ceases to have real meaning.
Jameson goes on to show how, in the conditions of late capitalism, our experience of time has undergone another qualitative change in response to communication and computational technologies. One insight is the way media, in its ‘real time delivery’ of events, has made possible a change in the way we experience cyclic processes in the economy. Where once it was a case of fifty year cycles of boom and bust, we are now confronted (literally by way of live streaming ‘news’) with short-term cycles of market ‘fluctuation’, contextualized as ‘crisis and recovery’. This is especially true of fluctuations in the financial sector, where the same communicative technology that brings us the ‘news as it happens’, enables those same fluctuations by allowing investors access to up to date information and the computational capacity to process vast quantities of statistical data on demand.
A moment’s thought will be enough to get an idea of the connection between our experience of the rhythms imposed on us by a particular productive mode; contrast the temporal experience of those living within a system of social relations conditioned on a rural agricultural economy, say, 70 years ago, and the lives of contemporary city dwellers, hooked up to the net and living against a backdrop of non-stop fluctuation in almost every aspect of experience, from the cycles of the economy to the momentary input of senses via communicative technology, advertising, and the general pace of urban life – different planets! No? And a correspondingly different experience of time.
For contemporary humans the clock has been recalibrated, and all of our social practices occur against this new temporal horizon. When, for example, a person takes up meditation, h/she experiences the passing of time conditioned on a particular relationship with technology – phones, iPad computers, media outlets, etc; just as importantly she undertakes her spiritual practices imbued with a sense of time conditioned on a narrative about this situation; a narrative centred on the fast paced, stressful immediacy of modern life and the pervasiveness of change. What seemed a natural expectation not so long ago – the guaranteed economic status and social position of the professional upper middle class, of the skilled tradesman, of the farmer – now seem like quaint, old-fashioned illusions. The new situation too now seems quite natural. But the sense of naturalness belies the way we construct our ways of seeing. We don’t see ‘nature‘, so much as collectively reconstitute the ‘stuff‘ of nature into habitual thought configurations. In other words we are interpellated into an ideology that delivers its own version of ‘naturalness’.
One of x-buddhism’s core preoccupations is to stem the tide of what it calls ‘distraction’: it uses this traditional buddhist term in a new context – to reference the distracted experience of modern urbanized life. As an antidote, it advocates an attitude that values slowing down. In the midst of the haphazard, hypnotic swirl of urban experience we can, says x-buddhists, create for ourselves a transcendental oasis of calm and bliss. Indeed we can ‘transcend and include’ our experience of the fast paced distracting input of sense perceptions by a process of seeing into their empty nature, as just one more deluded arising; we can ‘touch ground’ while ‘riding the tiger’.
Our irritation, boredom, emotional upheavals, and wandering mind are the basis of the meditation practice itself. Without them, there is no meditation practice, just some kind of gooey, vague, and highly suspicious sense of well-being that lacks any real strength or foundation. We are just trying to pacify our mind in a superficial way, without not working with ourselves as we really are – emotional, speedy, tired, anxious, spaced out, or whatever arises. By touching in on these difficult aspects of our experience—really tasting them, and then allowing them to exist without judgement or manipulation—we are tuning into a new kind of spaciousness that is refreshing and creative (5)
This is beautifully expressed in the way the narrative of crisis and recovery (personified as the drama of the rise and fall of financial superstars) has become an unquestioned backdrop to conversation, subject to the same sort of chit-chat once reserved for the vagaries of the weather. As Jameson says, the upshot is to abolish the past and the future as viable concepts; both have been subject to a radical relativization – the reach of human recall measured on a news agencies willingness to milk ‘news stories’ – an entertaining dramatization of the lives of those caught up in the ‘maelstrom’ of financial, political and environmental upheaval, viewed as a series of unpredictable natural events. Each episode of this drama, subject to constant update, is as ephemeral as the latest technological gadget; the drama’s ‘throw away nature’ belies the seriousness with which it announces the latest ‘development’, the last of which simply dissolves the significance of what came before. By such are we condemned to live in an eternal present, while introjecting the narrative of unceasing innovation and change .
Spiritualized Corporality (or corporatist spirituality)
The fetish of the present moment and the reduction to the body are mutually conditioning discourses; the narrative of unpredictably and upheaval, now extended to include what was once considered its purest expression – the weather (in its new guise as climate change) – expunges the possibility of understanding the complex processes that would enable a practice of social change. At the same time the focus of the subjective gaze withdraws from a world that seems to deliver jolt after jolt to the psyche, and to periodically spin altogether out of control, despite our sophisticated technological know-how. Withdrawn from all of this, the inner gaze passively contemplates the body; a form of practice that seems capable of delivering an unmediated resolution of the felt sense of alienation from a world we seem to mysteriously create awry, while wishing otherwise.
X-buddhism presents this practice of the body as confirming an ancient truth. But it is the contemporary narrative of the hegemony of the now that facilitates the easy acceptance of such a practice, and not the philosophical appeal of the ancient Buddhist trope of the impermanent and insubstantial nature of present moment experience (although, of course, x-buddhist discourse presents it as such). Meanwhile, the subjects whose decisions create and maintain the structures and processes of the economy (corporate managers, investors, bureaucrats, politicians and the owners of productive wealth) can go about their business without comment; or a comment so marginalized as to consign it to an irrelevant past (tradition) or an impossible future (Utopia). We are, proclaim the prophets of neo-liberalism, at the end of history, and this discourse conveniently morphs with the discourse on the body (a marriage made in heaven for those who regard the state of things as they now are to be the last word in how humans should organize their affairs).
To proclaim the radically contingent and impermanent nature of experience was once, no doubt, a ‘wake up’ call for a subject set firm within the hierarchical structures of a medieval economy and a discourse extolling the value of tradition. But what of that same insight offered to the financial investor, juggling two or three multi million dollar deals before lunch, and trying to salvage his reputation and what’s left of someone’s capital after lunch? Or the board of a multinational corporation who see no reason why they should sacrifice present profitability for future sustainability by easing up on the exploitation of natural resources. Isn’t the insight into the insubstantial and impermanent nature of experience drained of its liberative potential in circumstances where the present moment has become just another opportunity to consume the infinite variety of goods, gadgets, and entertainments spread before us by the advertising industry; what we would, in a past era, have condemned as a decent into materialistic self-indulgence, is now the existential condition of a large section of the population of capitalist ‘democracies’, grounded on the logic of the capitalist mode – produce in order to consume in order to continue producing.
The turn in (and what it turns on)
Consumption, though, is now exercised at a new level of sophistication – we consume not individual goods but whole lifestyles consequent on a vision (concocted by a coalition of media – advertising, television, entertainment) of individual life as an acquisition. Thus the human is made into a cypher of exchange, its value measurable in terms of the accoutrements, material and social, that adorn a successful life.. The inherent cruelty of this is, of course, ignored; my success is conditioned on you or someone else being seen as unsuccessful, in terms of their self perception, and as a fact of economy; there just isn’t a level playing field and those who succeed, do so at the expense of the majority .
This is, of course, a truth banal enough to go uncommented upon, since the existing state of things – the existing productive mode – has been naturalized and accepted as simply the way life is. Grow up and knuckle down, our kids are told. We even tell them ourselves, ventriloquising the advertising drivel about the ‘good life’. When they inevitably discover the banality of what we ask of them, and rebel – almost always, these days, in self-destructive ways – we are helpless to offer an alternative, since alternatives presuppose an awareness of the historical dimensions which bracket the present. What can we offer them, or ourselves for that matter, but more of the same?
Those who have caught a glimpse of the existential hole at the centre of consumerist discourse have few ways out, short of accepting a demeaning acquiescence to ‘the way life is’ – a ‘grin and bear it’ stoicism that belies a persistent melancholia; let’s leave aside those overwhelmed by depression, compulsive behavior, and substance abuse; helpless in the face of the inhuman onslaught on their integrity (using the word in its dictionary meaning; a state of being whole and undivided, of the condition of being unified or of sound construction); they fall by the wayside unnoticed, except by their loved ones, and the bureaucrats who must monitor the system, keep the records, and compile statistics in the service of efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
One of the ways out is to turn the gaze in, and try to keep it steadfastly there. This looks superficially like an act of some nobility; an authentic turning away from a superficial consumerist lifestyle. It seems to promises a dignity befitting the human; a vision of what a human once was, and might still be. We can become, says x-buddhist discourse, a thinking and acting subject in command of, rather than the slave to, compulsions. We can become strong in conviction and able to act out of compassion. What relief, to look inside oneself and, guided by the masters of an ancient tradition, find the unmediated reconciliation of an alienated subject and its ‘always to hand’ object – the body; and to discover, in the present moment, and by way of the body, a way back to ‘who we really are’.
Whenever one attempts to escape a situatedness in the past and the future or in other words to escape our being-in-time as such, the temporal present offers a rather flimsy support and a doubtful or fragile autonomy. It thus inevitably comes to be thickened and solidified, complemented, by a rather more metaphysical backing or content, which is none other than the idea of eternity itself. (6)
In other words the present moment, in order to deliver the liberative potential announced by the discourse, must be subjected to a reification that extracts it from the continuum of past and future, and places it within a metaphysical space of ‘timelessness’, an ‘eternal present’. Conveniently (for corporate capitalism) the move out of temporality and into present moment bodily experience coincides with a momentum already at work within the structures and processes of capitalism.
The banal truth (and its consequences)
Unending innovation, and media driven consumerism keeps us, paradoxically, morphed into a virtual present, like a glyph in a looped video presentation. And like the backdrop to a video game the ‘future’ arises’ (or co-arises to use a favorite x-buddhist term) as required by the unfolding drama of the game they would have us play, the action just one step behind the environment, which literally appears (manifests) out of nothing. The future is now.
Therein resides the highest speculative identity of opposites in today’s global civilization: although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement. (7)
For x-buddhism, such a statement makes no sense, since its discourse precludes the abstract or universal objects referenced by the term ‘historical dimensions’. These realities are simply dismissed as distracting conceptualizations. But of course there is no other way for such abstract objects – social practices, economic structures, modes, historical processes, ideological or symbolic systems – to appear within experience except in the form of conceptualizations. Both the fetish of the present moment and the reduction to the body expunge, along with the past and the future, all the abstract categories enabling a critical understanding of the how and the why of things and processes.
We are left with unmediated experience; a self-sufficient loop, named, by way of conceptualization, as that experience of non-duality beyond naming and conceptualization. This, of course, literally gets us nowhere, but a nowhere conflated with eternity and necessarily ‘thickened and solidified’, as Jameson puts it, in order to withstand the inevitable assaults of common sense.
Here we see a remarkable convergence; the two-fold bankruptcy of introspection – its inability to deliver knowledge of our real situation, since awareness can never directly experience the modes and structures that enable awareness – and its inability to deliver knowledge of the social modes and structures that enable the subject, since it occludes knowledge of the ideologies into which we have been interpellated. One of these, is, of course, the x-buddhist discourse on the potential of introspective practice to deliver knowledge by way of a reduction to the present moment and the body. Caught in this double bind, x-buddhists are trapped within the circularity of their own discourse and practice; enlightenment references a form of phenomenological darkness; liberation a form of collective enslavement.
But isn’t this solidifying of the present moment entirely at odds with the spirit of Buddhist notions of insubstanciality? Well yes, but x-buddhists, enamoured by notions of suchness, non–duality, and non-conceptuality having more in common with Vedanta than with Buddhism, are not overly worried by such philosophical quibbling. They may have jumped ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ but for a time they will burn with the quiet zeal of the newly converted. Eventually the truth will dawn, of course, and they will just burn, as the protagonist well knew:
“Everything, brethren, is on fire. How, brethren, is everything on fire? The eye, brethren, is on fire, visible objects are on fire, the faculty of the eye is on fire, the sense of the eye is on fire, and also the sensation, whether pleasant or unpleasant or both, which arises from the sense of sight, is on fire. With what is it on fire? With the fire of passion, of hate, of illusion is it.”
Strange to contrast the radical world rejecting (even world hating?) lions roar of the protagonist with the inane banality of modern x-buddhist corporate spirituality – a co-opted, dumbed down, hobby Buddhism for corporate managers, technocrats, bureaucrats, professionals and (down the line) politicians and generals. A religion for the new Romans; bread and circus for the rest.